FRISCO, Texas - To the naked eye, Saturday's 35-7 win for North Dakota State against Towson in the FCS national championship game appeared to turn on two pivotal plays in the first half before 19,802 mostly NDSU fans at Toyota Stadium.
The first came with the score tied 7-7 and Towson lining up for a 41-yard field goal that could have given the Tigers the lead. North Dakota State's Colten Heagle slipped through the Towson line to block the kick, and NDSU's Kyle Emanuel returned it 59 yards to set up a 5-yard touchdown run by Ryan Smith on the very next play that gave the Bisons a 14-7 lead.
The two-time defending national champions never trailed again.But it was on the next Towson offensive possession where NDSU really established its dominance, and an unlikely Bison hero, senior middle linebacker Grant Olson, was right in the middle of it with two plays that might have been overlooked by the casual observer. Playing with a torn anterior cruciate knee ligament that he earlier feared had ended his season and his playing career, Olson made back-to-back stops of talented Towson running back Terrance West.
"I was able to get in there and contribute, so that felt great," Olson said.
His back-to-back tackles of West helped set up a third-down play where Towson quarterback Peter Athens overthrew his intended receiver and was intercepted by NDSU cornerback CJ Smith, who promptly returned it 32 yards to set up yet another Bison touchdown, this time on a 12-yard pass from the game's Most Valuable Player, quarterback Brock Jensen, to wide receiver Zach Vraa.
"We were hanging in there, but they were moving the ball on us," North Dakota State coach Craig Bohl said. "Then the blocked field field goal and the interception led to those two touchdowns for us. I really think that created a ton of energy and momentum for us."
At the same time, so did Olson's mere appearance on the field.
"Grant's a great player and a great leader," nose guard Ryan Drevlow said. "It was awesome to see him back out there with us."A three-year starter at the time, Olson tore his ACL on Nov. 9 against Illinois State. Both player and coach feared at the time that his season -- and his playing career -- were over.
"I certainly thought it was over," Bohl said. "When a guy gets a torn ACL with some other damages, his career is pretty much over. But Grant is a very determined player and person. He's going to do well in life whatever he chooses to do.
"After the initial injury, he kind of had it in the back of his mind, 'Don't count me out, Coach. I'm going to continue to work out.' And I appreciated that -- but quite frankly, I didn't count on him [coming back]."
That changed as time passed and Saturday's big game approached.
"As each week went along, he'd begin to run up and down the sidelines with a bit more exhilaration -- and he kept saying it felt better," Bohl said. "It was interesting, because right after the injury he came up to me and said, 'Coach, all I want to do is play one more play. I just want to be able to go out there one more time.' "
In the end, Olson achieved that and plenty more. He was inserted in for two plays in the Bison's 52-14 semifinals playoff win against New Hampshire -- and in Saturday's championship game, he doubled down on that and then some.
Olson made his first appearance against Towson in the second quarter and immediately got in on a tackle, helping stop West for no gain when the score was still tied 7-7.
"With all our fans here and how big a game this was, that was a pretty emotional moment," Olson said.
Later in the third quarter with the Bisons up 28-7, he stuffed West again for a 1-yard loss that nearly resulted in a safety.
Olson admitted to being depressed initially about his injury. But while he was undergoing rehabilitation treatment, he served unofficially as a "student assistant coach," helping out with younger players in practice whenever he could.
"That is truly the Bison way," Olson said. "That's who we are and what we do. If that means coaching, if that means helping out a younger guy, if that means playing two plays, we are all going to do whatever we can possibly do to accomplish our goals and our dreams."
And all the while, he kept bugging Bohl about getting back on the field for at least one more play. His teammates certainly were glad the coach eventually acquiesced.
"It was great to see Grant back out there with us, doing what he loves to do," said Carlton Littlejohn, who replaced Olson in the starting lineup after Olson's injury. "When he went down with that ACL, he was down for a little bit. But he kept going. He kept working, hoping that he'd be able to play one more game.
"Well, he played two more games. And it was great to see him back out there, running the defense, being the quarterback of the defense and making some plays. It was great to see and great to play with him."
Nose guard Ryan Drevlow added: "Even when he was out with his injury, we would come off the field after a defensive series and there he was on the sidelines. He'd be telling us what went wrong and how to correct it.
"He plays with great emotion, and he loves his teammates. Just to have him out there with us was special. It kind of completes the defense."
The NDSU defense certainly was complete against Towson, holding an offense that had averaged 34 points per game in three earlier FCS playoff victories to a single touchdown overall and scoreless during the final three quarters.
That enabled Olson and his teammates to become only the second team in FCS history to win three consecutive national championships. As if that wasn't spectacular enough, Olson can now someday tell his grandchildren that he played in the historic game -- and contributed mightily to the victory -- despite a bum knee that seemingly should have prevented him from doing so.
"Regardless of rank or level of football, this is one of the greatest senior classes and one of the greatest college football teams of all time," Olson said. "People can say what they want, but I think that's a pretty fair statement.
"When I got hurt, I was just hoping they'd let me dress one more time or something. But I really didn't want to end it that way, so I'm pretty lucky."